Solemnity of The Epiphany of the Lord
Readings: Isaiah 60:1–6; Psalm 71(72):1–2, 7–8, 10–13; Ephesians 3:2–3, 5–6; Matthew 2:1–12
2 January 2022
“We saw his star as it rose and have come to do him homage.” – Matthew 2:2
The manifestation of the birth of Christ by a star was not the only time that the birth of an important personage was made known in this way. People like Alexander the Great and others were also said to have been made known by the appearance of a star at their birth.
In celebrating the Epiphany, the Church remembers that the Messiah was manifested to the Magi—as representative of the Gentiles—who would come to recognise Christ as the Redeemer of the whole world, and not just of the Jewish people.
Although the Wise Men were not children of Abraham and therefore did not have the faith of ancient Israel, God was nevertheless drawing them to his Son, through faith, by means of the natural creation in which they had an expertise. In other words, God shows that he leads human beings to himself by means of his own creation which acts as a secondary cause of his love.
Although Herod, and indeed all of Jerusalem, is “perturbed” by the announcement of the Wise Men, no one really cared enough to follow them to Bethlehem which was only a short distance away from Jerusalem.
In this way, we see how those who were “supposedly” in expectation of the Messiah were not really interested to find out about the Messiah at all. The whole disturbance in Jerusalem was really a facade of earnestly seeking God, because the same reaction is manifested towards Jesus of Nazareth 30 years later when the Messiah finally appears openly to Israel.
Lord, whether they be Jews or Gentiles, only those with a sincere heart will blessed in Christ. May we all be numbered among them. Amen.
Fr Mark De Battista
The Adoration of the Magi – Alessandro Di Mariano Di Vanni Filipepi, known as Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510)
“The Adoration of the Magi” (c. 1475–76) Tempera on panel, 134 cm × 111 cm Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy. Public Domain.
This is political painting at its best. Around the year 1475, Gaspare di Zanobi del Lama, a wealthy Florentine banker and courtier of the Medici family, commissioned the young Sandro Botticelli to paint an altarpiece for his funeral chapel in the Church of Santa Maria Novella (from which in modern times Florence’s train station takes its name.) He wanted the chapel to be dedicated to the Epiphany. His name, Gaspare (or Casper) was by tradition the name of one of the Magi.
In the history of Florentine art, this scene was frequently painted. Florence had no royal family, so every local family that came to power would commission a painter to depict the adoration of the Magi with the members of the family as the subjects, showing the citizens that the local government had God’s blessing. Botticelli accommodated this tradition. But instead of depicting the traditional manger, Botticelli has the Holy Family placed on a sturdy rock, high above the visitors, in the scene of a dilapidated Roman ruin, seeming to say that Christianity would be built on a firmer base than pagan Rome.
On the far right of the work is Gaspare who paid for the work, pictured as an old man with white hair and a light blue robe, looking at the viewer. The Magi kneeling at Mary’s feet, in an act of bowing to kiss the Child’s foot, is Cosimo de Medici. The other Wise Men are Piero and Giovanni de Medici, Cosimo’s two sons. They are kneeling, speaking to each other. On the left of the painting stands the young Lorenzo the Magnificent, hands entwined around his sword watching the scene as if saying, “Today is your day, but I am the future.” In reality, the three Medici portrayed as the Magi were dead at the time of the painting, and Florence was effectively ruled by Lorenzo (who, by chance, was baptised on January the 6th, the feast of the Magi.)
Botticelli filled the rest of the space with other friends and influential figures from Florence, and among them is himself on the extreme right, looking directly at the viewer, telling us he is no simple painter, but a friend of Florence’s most powerful families.
Botticelli had been apprenticed to Filippo Lippi’s workshop as a young man, and Lippi’s style is clearly recognisable in the Holy Family here depicted. This is a typical Lippi Madonna and Child. Joseph, head in hand, looks on in wonderment. In my opinion, Joseph’s hesitation in taking the pregnant Mary as his wife was due, not because he suspected Mary of infidelity, but because in his humility he could not believe God would have singled him out in such a unique way.
At the top of the painting there is just a hint of the famous star. Was it real? In part III of his monumental Jesus of Nazareth, Benedict XVI tackles the question. Modern astronomers calculate that in the year 7–6 B.C. (now thought likely to be the time Jesus was born), there was a conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn in the Pisces constellation. The Magi were considered astronomers. It was considered that the planet Jupiter stood for the principal Babylonian God, Marduk, and Saturn was the cosmic representation of the Jewish people. According to some, from this planetary encounter, Babylonian astronomers were able to conclude that a universally significant event had taken place—the birth in the land of the Jews of a ruler who would bring salvation.
The Magi may well have been familiar with the Oracle of Balaam, son of Beor, a pagan who in vision declared: “I see him—but not in the present, I behold him—but not close at hand: a star from Jacob takes the leadership, a sceptre arises from Israel”—this is recorded in the book of Numbers (24:17) and obviously circulated in some form outside Judaism. Balaam’s star is not a celestial body. Rather, the coming King is himself the star that determines the world’s fate.
Led by the star, the Wise Men represent the movement of the Gentiles towards Christ, and the star implies that the cosmos itself speaks of Christ! “It is not the star that determines the child’s destiny, it is the child that directs the star” (Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth, p 101).
Mgr Graham Schmitzer
Fr Mark De Battista is the administrator of St Patrick’s Catholic Parish in Port Kembla and Catholic chaplain at the University of Wollongong. Born in 1970, his family migrated to Australia from Malta in 1978. He was raised in a strong Catholic family and was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Wollongong in 1995. From 2003–2007 he served in university ministry in the USA (Illinois and Colorado). From 2010–2016 he went to Rome for studies in sacred Scripture. He has served in several parishes in the Diocese of Wollongong.
Monsignor Graham Schmitzer recently retired as the parish priest at Immaculate Conception Parish in Unanderra, NSW. He was ordained in 1969 and has served in many parishes in the Diocese of Wollongong. He was also chancellor and secretary to Bishop William Murray for 13 years. He grew up in Port Macquarie and was educated by the Sisters of St Joseph of Lochinvar. For two years he worked for the Department of Attorney General and Justice before entering St Columba’s College, Springwood, in 1962. Fr Graham loves travelling and has visited many of the major art galleries in Europe.
With thanks to the Diocese of Wollongong who have supplied the weekly Advent and Christmas 2021 reflections from their publication, Blessed – Advent & Christmas Daily Reflections 2021.